Finding the ‘Joy in the Mourning’

AUGUST 22, 2021 07:00 AM

Nature doesn’t refuse itself, not like human nature does, anyway. For example, the tree does not pretend to be anything but a tree, and it does not refuse being the tree that it is. It graciously accepts the storm no matter the loss of limb, and it willingly sheds its leaves every autumn in a brilliant display of grief. Of course, the tree will also die one day, but these ongoing rituals of surrender are what enable the tree to survive the storm, year after year. Nature has a way of reminding me that surrender leads to a place of remarkable beauty, peace, and hope. But surrender often comes after great resistance.

The snow fell hard as I aimlessly drove into the night. It was late January 2011, and I had been awakened in the night by a deep unrest, compelling me into the wilderness. My journey had no destination, but I had a lot to leave behind. I parked my car at the base of a mountain, and without a flashlight or a plan, I headed into the woods.

I soon came to a log that provided a path across the stream. This was normally an easy cross, but with several inches of ice and snow, it was a treacherous endeavor. Still, my compulsion pushed me forward. I stood on the log and stepped back down. I tried again. One step, maybe two, and I stepped down again. In that moment, it occurred to me. The wilderness was inviting me to surrender.

For quite some time I had been holding on to a need to control my father’s decisions about his life and his health. I was his sole caregiver, and at the time he was declining quickly. My father had cancer, but what disturbed me most was what seemed like his desire to die sooner than later. He first suggested this when he told me of his diagnosis, saying, “if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t care.” Despite the landscape of my memories and my fears, the cold, dark, dangerous path before me whispered, “let go.”

Without hesitation I stood on the log, took the necessary risk, and made it across. With a quickened pace to keep some momentum on the ice, I continued up the mountain until exhaustion. As my breathing calmed and my heart rate returned to resting, I noticed how the snow was filtering through the trees; a crystallized mist, surrounding me and tickling my face. I could hear the subtle tapping of it gently landing on my shoulders as my eyes adjusted to the shadows. The landscape was virgin and beautiful. This was a sacred place. As the weight of my fears settled, a complete calm came over me. I stepped forward and embraced a tree, kissing its bark, and thanking the forest for the gift it had just given me.

I carried in and out of that night the depths of my fears, but I left with gratitude and a great sense of contentment. In that storm, I found a grounding that would carry me through the upcoming months, until and beyond the moment of my father’s death. This ritual of surrender gave me a freedom to let go and a capacity to embrace what little time I had to connect with and enjoy the physical presence of my father, regardless of my judgments, my expectations, my disappointments. What a gift!

Moments like these do not erase the pain, but instead invite a deep appreciation for the gift in the pain. It is possible to feel great sadness and great joy all at once. This is what I like to call “The Joy of Mourning.” The rituals in these moments provide little touchstones in the history of my grief. They tell the story of my continuing love for those I have lost. Sometimes, it’s just plain weird! For example, on the eighth anniversary of my sister’s death, I found myself on my knees, plunging my hot and sobbing face deep into a large drift of snow, staying submerged for as long as I could bear. I stood to see my face embossed in the drift, looking back at me with a calming gaze. I took a picture of that face, and it serves as a reminder of what it looks like to be transcended by a moment of grief.

My invitation for you is to consider letting go. What is it that you need to grieve? What are your fears connected to that grieving? There is a universal wisdom that knows suffering is a necessary part of transformation. Allow yourself to surrender, but don’t judge. Judging is fear. Instead, allow your heart to speak. You may be surprised by what it has to say, and you may even find joy in the mourning.

Zachary Maser is a photographer, musician, husband, and father of two wonderful little girls. He is a case manager for the Centre County Youth Service Bureau’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and he has been an on-and-off volunteer with the Tides program since 2009. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

This was first printed in the Centre Daily Times on August 22, 2021.